India to U.S.: Why Spend $6 Billion to Elect a Government?

India to U.S.: Why Spend $6 Billion to Elect a Government?


As reported last week, Romney and the Republican National Committee have outperformed the Obama fundraising machine – for the second month in a row. With only a few months left until the election in November, this campaign cycle is quickly becoming the most expensive presidential race in history. Nationalistic hubris – always a convenient explanatory resource – suggests that the high stakes in the outcome of elections in the “largest democracy in the world” necessitate such staggering campaign expenditures. I don’t buy it.

The 2008 United States presidential election campaign was the most expensive ever, with $5.3 billion spent by candidates, political parties and interest groups on the congressional and presidential races. These numbers represented a 27 percent increase from the $4.2 billion spent in the 2004 campaigns.

Hopefully, the question in everyone’s mind (and, incidentally, the exact quandary CNN sought to answer) is: Why do U.S. elections cost so much? The answers provided brought me back to the days of politics 101 college courses, leaving me with a curious dissatisfaction.

One of the most interesting explanations opinion makers spouse is expressed by Republican strategist Ron Bonjean:

“America is the largest democracy in the world and that’s going to cost a lot of money to express yourself and get your message out, get the vote out, get people to support you and put in (campaign) infrastructure.”

Actually, the largest democracy in the world is not the United States (with a population of 300 million), it’s India (with a population of 1.2 billion).

So what if Mr. Bonjean can’t match his political systems to his population sizes? Why should we care? Well, because in 2009 the actual world’s largest democracy (remember, that’s India), spent about $2 billion in its general election, or less than half the $5.3 billion spent in the U.S. federal elections in 2008.

Yes, a country four times larger than the United States spent less than half the money electing its government. So Mr. Bonjean’s explanation (bigger countries spend more on elections than do smaller countries) seems bogus.

But perhaps I am being unfair with Mr. Bonjean.  After all, “larger” is a vague qualifier, perhaps what he really meant is that the United States is the largest democracy in the world in terms of money. Alright, let’s try that avenue, and throw in a freebie comparison to a Western Hemisphere country for good measure.

France has a GDP of roughly $2.5 trillion dollars, which about six times smaller than the U.S. roughly $14.5 trillion dollar GDP. France also recently held elections, which cost about 228 million Euros, or about 280 million U.S. dollars. Scale that number up six times and you get about $1.6 billion U.S. dollars.

Damn, that number still severely lower than the $5.4 billion the U.S. spent in campaigns in 2008. So size of the economy, at least in my rudimentary test above, is not a great explanatory factor for electoral campaign spending either Mr. Bonjean, sorry.

Moving on.

Alright, so demography and economic scale can’t adequately explain (at least when compared to other countries) the exorbitant costs of our elections. But that’s good news, population size and economic performance can only be indirectly and slowly influenced by policy.

The bad news is, of course, that the obvious reason other countries manage their democracies more cost effectively is that they operate under a different (read better) campaign regulatory frameworks.

To take the French example, see if you can spot (in bold) the differences,

Official electoral campaigns in France are very brief. Campaign finance is strictly regulated. All forms of paid commercial advertisements through the press or by any audiovisual means are prohibited during the three months preceding the election. Instead, political advertisements are aired free of charge on an equal basis for all of the candidates on national television channels and radio stations during the official campaign. Campaign donations and expenditures are capped [our severely loop-holed caps don’t count, sorry]. Candidates must appoint an independent financial representative to handle all their financial matters relating to the election. Campaign accounts are audited by a special commission. Candidates whose campaign accounts are certified may be reimbursed up to 50 percent of their expenses by the state if they meet certain conditions.

Many countries follow the French system of publicly funded and regulated campaigns. In the United States, a public financed campaign option exists. However, no serious candidate would accept those meager, regulated funds when a privately financed campaign offers less regulation and the potential to garner more funds.

Private and special interests, of course, benefit from the expected reciprocity of their donations. The greater the donations, the more leverage private and special interests have over the officials whose campaigns they financed. The unfortunate result is elected officials who are more responsive to the needs and interests of the wealthy.

To admit that the government is up for auction to the highest bidder would be somewhat crass in these modern times. So, to further private and special interests, campaign financing has been construed as a freedom of expression issue.

The most recent example of this artificial debate was the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Supreme Court ruled that the government may not ban independent political spending by corporations, or other interest groups – even if by doing so the Court has ironically allowed corporations to infringe on the freedom of expression of those without the financial resources to buy television airtime for their candidate of choice… But let’s not digress.

My point here is not that our current campaign financing system makes the little guy irrelevant (though it sadly does), my point is that it’s ridiculously expensive (and the higher price tag does not lead to more representative government).

It’s more expensive because, once political representation is up for auction, electoral campaigns become an arms race. Given that victory is thought to be closely linked to outspending one’s rival.

The absolute cost of an election is irrelevant, the only factor that matters is spending more than your opponent. It does not matter if a candidate spent $5,000 or $5 billion, if his or her opponent spent $5,050 or $5 billion five hundred, that same opponent will have bought a few more hours of airtime, won the hearts of a few more independents, and therefore won.

At least, that seems to be the assumption of both the Obama and Romney campaigns as they invest untold hours holding fundraising events.

But what do you care, right? It’s private money, not taxpayer dime. And besides, even if it helps, more funds do not necessarily guarantee victory.

Sure, more spending does not guarantee victory. Message, candidate character and performance, strategy, all these factors still matter. However, private and special interests are playing the odds.

No one is naive enough to think a magic amount in campaign donations will put a candidate of choice in office. But if a few million dollars can better the odds, corporations and interest groups won’t by shy with their checkbooks.

So why should you care if it is not your cash?

Well, it is not your cash, no. But it could be. With staggering unemployment, the projected $6 billion (some place the figure at $9.8 billion) to be spent in the 2012 presidential elections could pay $50,000 salaries for 120,000 people.

I don’t know about you, but I would give Obama and Romney $1 million each in taxpayer money to knock themselves out, and allow the rest to flow back to the economy, potentially as wages, research and development investment, lower prices for goods, etc.

And heck, maybe then both candidates would get a few more checks from American families earning a decent living.